Say you have the only viable big-screen superhero franchise in town. You’ve just come off of a pair of indisputable classics and audiences are chomping at the bit to see what’s next. Your star, Christopher Reeve, is the definitive version of the character – trumping multiple future incarnations as well as past favorites – and clearly thrilled with making more. You have a burgeoning phenomenon in the computer revolution that seems tailor made for comic book mayhem, and even a canonized villain (Brainiac) who fits it like a glove.
So what do you do? You plop Richard Pryor in the middle of it all and watch your formerly enthusiastic audience deliver a collective face-palm. Superman III doesn’t rank as the worst of the series, but only just: the mind-boggling WTF-ness of the endeavor demonstrates just how wrong a movie can go. (And how quickly.) Richard Lester, who kited Superman II in for a landing after Richard Donner stomped out in a huff, took over directing duties and – much like Joel Schumacher would do with the Batman films – almost single-handedly drove it into the ground.
Pryor remains the most baffling decision: a comic best known for his groundbreaking adult stand-up routines, and for lighting himself on fire in a drug-added bender. Sure, let’s put that guy in a PG family film, muzzle his daring voice so he doesn’t freak out the kids, and then give him more screen time than Superman IN A FUCKING SUPERMAN MOVIE!!! To do nothing except mug at the camera! And set a malevolent computer loose! A computer that neither answers to the name “Brainiac” nor trumps the campy businessman (Robert Vaughn) who serves as what we laughingly refer to as the bad guy!
Lester and producing partners Alexander and Ilya Salkind apparently felt like Superman belonged solely to the kids, eschewing Donner’s nuanced, well-balanced approach in favor of a near-farce. That doesn’t rankle so much as the mess of half-formed ideas that somehow treat the purpose of the exercise as an afterthought. With Lois Lane packed merrily off to Bermuda (Margot Kidder spoke her mind about Donner’s departure, which didn’t sit well with the Salkinds), Reeve’s Clark Kent heads back to Smallville to reconnect with old flame Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole).
Herein lies just one of the film’s numerous missed opportunities. O’Toole is lovely, and sending Supes home gives us a chance to explore his human roots: to see how he crafted the goofy persona he displays in Metropolis and watch him react to the people who really know him. Instead, Lester reduces the concept to a series of inept slapstick as Clark contends with local bully Brad (Gavan O’Herlihy) and teaches O’Toole’s young son lessons about eating your vegetables or something.
As grim as it gets, however, it least has some grounding in the Superman mythology. Less so the larger crisis, involving Pryor’s Gus Gorman and his evil bosses who want to use his computer wizardry to take over the world in some vaguely defined way. The producers clearly wanted to say something about the burgeoning PC revolution (like WarGames did much more competently a few weeks prior), but rather than going with the tailor-made bad guy, they lumped this crap together and then tasked Pryor to sell it to us. The results are flat-out embarrassing, with Pryor adopting a hapless Jerry Lewis flail to cover up for a role he clearly doesn’t feel comfortable with. The danger (when it arises) feels flat and cheap, with no real menace to compel us and few actual consequences beyond some hastily prepared plot exposition. Even when it’s serious, it’s a joke… and a pretty poor one at that.
That leaves Reeve to carry the load all by himself. He’s game, of course but with the film itself seemingly indifferent to his presence, it’s an uphill battle. He manages to score some wins despite it all, mostly in the scenes where Gorman’s trumped-up Kryptonite turns him into a Super Dick. There’s something hypnotic about watching the Man of Steel act like a complete creep, and Reeve invests the concept with subtle menace that the rest of the film’s dangers desperately need. The junkyard battle between good and evil Supes constitutes the film’s only real highlight, and it’s no secret as to why: just look at the only performer on the screen.
Sadly, he couldn’t do it all on his own. Even with O’Toole’s game support, there’s too much strange, baffling, incoherent, ridiculous and just plain diarrhetic material to let even this superhero prevail. The Donner films wrote him against the canvas of the universe itself. This one feels more like monkeys with fingerpaints, made by people who didn’t know what they were doing and wouldn’t care even if they did. And as horrifying as it sounds, Superman III didn’t even touch bottom. Reeve himself help put the nail in the coffin a few years later with the you’ve-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it Superman IV. Kal-El may live on in The Man of Steel franchise; judging by the weekend returns, he’s off to a good start. Hopefully, the new filmmakers will look to this film as a cautionary example: proof that even the greatest film series are not immune to a swift and ignominious demise.